A Family Accused

Employees At Day Care Center Accused Of Abusing Children

Given her past, Cheryl Amirault LeFave is almost grateful for her grueling schedule. She's working two jobs, for a total of nearly 70 hours a week.

"I had such a difficult time job searching. The notoriety of the case causes people to be hesitant with respect to employing me," says Cheryl, who at age 29 was convicted of molesting preschoolers. "It's something that I'm determined to overcome."

Cheryl, who was found guilty of raping and indecently assaulting four children, spent eight years in prison. But now, Correspondent Susan Spencer reports on dramatic new developments in this case.

Cheryl Amirault LeFave once devoted her life to children, and has fond memories of the old days.

As a newlywed, she worked in her family's business at The Fells Acres Day School in Malden, Mass. The school was built by her mother, Violet.

"This was mom's life," recalls Cheryl. "This was my life. This was my joy. This is why I woke up every day."

But the family's happy life at the center came to an abrupt end in 1984.

"We're talking about rape, indecent sexual assault," says Det. John Rivers. "That three owners of the business sexually abused a number of children at the day care center."

The allegation came via a child abuse hot line and was made against Cheryl's brother, Gerald Amirault. Authorities obtained an arrest warrant for Gerald, and within days, Cheryl and her mother, Violet, were also under suspicion.

Police closed the school and called concerned parents to a meeting. They suggested that parents question their kids, specifically about a magic room, a secret room and a clown.

"We don't blame the parents. We don't blame the children," says Cheryl. "How could they contain the hysteria that was created back in the mid-1980s, when child abuse was a frightening thing?"

At the time, stories of ritual abuse at day care centers were surfacing around the country. But the shock for Cheryl was that other people believed the allegations against her and her family.

"I wanted to say, 'This is crazy. These are good people. You know, what's motivating you,'" says supporter Debbie Hersey, whose son attended the school. She blames a faulty investigation. "It sickens me to read the paper."

But the parents of one child say it was all too real – and that they recognized the signs of abuse. At 19, their daughter said she was so traumatized when she was 4 that she could only read a statement about what happened: "I'm a victim of a terrible crime they committed to a lot of very young innocent children."

She was interviewed by prosecution specialist nurse Susan Kelly 18 months after she left Fells Acres. Kelly's tapes helped convince the grand jury to indict the Amiraults, and the girl eventually became one of four kids to testify against Cheryl and Violet Amirault.

Gerald Amirault was tried first. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 to 40 years.

Cheryl and her 63-year-old mother, Violet, faced the charges together. "By the time Mom and I went to trial, I was terrified. At that moment, I knew Mom and I didn't stand a chance," recalls Cheryl. "I cried when they testified against me. It's the worst thing that you can go through in your life."

Former prosecutor Larry Hardoon says the motive was pornography: "You have children that were testifying to what appeared to be video recordation of things that were taking place."

But Hardoon admits that none of the materials were ever found.

"Not one photograph ever found," says Cheryl. "Not one photograph presented at trial."

The jury deliberated just one day before convicting both women of sexually abusing children -- and sentencing them to eight to 20 years.

They would spend eight long years behind bars. Then, in 1995, after years of legal wrangling, their convictions were overturned on a technicality.

It was after The Wall Street Journal had taken a provocative look at the case, calling it a "miscarriage of justice." Violet died two years after her release. But prosecutors would not give up. They fought to reinstate Cheryl's conviction and they won.

Cheryl received a new hearing, but this time, it was focused not on technicalities, but on the very evidence that was so key to her conviction – the children's testimony. Were their stories really reliable?

How does she relate to kids these days? She says she doesn't: "I've been accused of such a heinous crime. I have created this fear inside me of children."

Separated from her husband, Cheryl remains close with her brother's family, which she calls her "sole support."

Meanwhile, Gerald still languishes in jail, even though he says he knows what started the accusations in the first place.

Gerald, who worked with his mother and sister at Fells Acres, was arrested in front of his own children after being charged with molesting children at the center.

"I was handcuffed. My daughters were at the school. My daughters had just started to attend the school," says Gerald.

What had happened? The previous day, the police had talked with a 5-year-old boy, who told his family that Gerald pulled his pants down.

"He told us who it was that did it to him. I found no reason for him to lie," recalls Rivers.

The investigators never interviewed Gerald before arresting him – even though he says he easily could have explained what happened.

"One day the boy had had an accident and wet himself. So thought nothing of it. Changed the boy," says Gerald. "He was a little bit embarrassed. He had to take his clothes off. I had to clean him up."

But by trial, 20 months later, nine children had described bizarre sexual acts that were harder to explain.

"You couldn't defend yourself. It was like boxing shadows. You know, like, you couldn't prove anything," says Gerald's wife, Patti. "Looking back now at all we know … we were naive to think that we would get anything but guilty."

After 14 years, Patti's frequent visits to prison are still an ordeal. "When you think of the things our kids have had to do, like walk in a prison, walk through a metal detector, body search," says Patti. "Our strength has come from an incredible family, great group of friends. We've tried to make life as normal as can be for kids who have been through this."

But it's not the life they and their children imagined.

"My kids' lives are -- whole chunks of it are just gone," says Patti.

"It's cost me my whole life with my father. My dad didn't see me go through high school," says Gerald's daughter, Katie, who is preparing to leave home. "It's like he missed out on so much. My whole entire childhood, and nothing can bring it back."

"The only time that I see him is for that brief half-hour that we sit, in between glass and talk to him over a phone," says Gerald's other daughter, Gerrilyn. "I can't hug him. I can't give him high-five. I have to look at him through fingerprint-smudged glass."

Gerald may have accepted his fate, but he still doesn't really understand it.

"To believe that I was taking children out randomly, molesting them and then bringing them back to their classroom when every teacher testified on my behalf that this never occurred, I don't even know how they could ever, you know, believe any of this stuff," says Gerald. "But yet they did."

"I've read every document that there is. It is impossible that this happened. Impossible," says Patti, whose attic overflows with legal documents she thinks still could show that children don't always tell the truth.

But what some of these children told the jury was horrifying – allegations of being penetrated by sticks, pens and wands, even oral intercourse.

To keep her freedom, Cheryl has one last long-shot chance to prove her case in court. She's depending on expert testimony from psychologist Maggie Bruck, whose research shows how suggestible children can be.

"Young children do come up with fantastic stories. And if they're encouraged, they'll take you up on that and run with it," says Bruck, who cites her study where children were interviewed and made inaccurate claims about touching after having a routine medical exam.

The problem is not the kids, Bruck says, but the interviewers and their techniques. For instance, in one child's exchange with nurse Susan Kelly, which occurred 18 months after the child attended Fells Acres, Kelly spent 37 minutes asking her if she saw a naked clown – or if she had ever been naked at the day care center. The tape, which was later shown to the jury, shows the child denying that this ever happened.

"She's told about a clown, she's told about a magic room, she's told about taking pictures, she's told about undressing," says Bruck. "None of these come from this child at all."

In her tapes, Kelly then tries peer pressure, but it doesn't work. "Despite trying every trick in the book, she still doesn't say anything," says Bruck.

In a later session, however, the girl agrees that things did happen. And after repeated interviews, she and three other children testified to the jury.

"How can little kids talk about bizarre, gruesome sexual abuse to their own bodies if it never happened," asks Cheryl's attorney, Dan Williams, who argues that the original verdict should be overturned. "If the jury had heard this new scientific evidence, the result probably would have been different."

"It was only when these aggressive, suggestive techniques were used that the allegations began to come out," says Bruck.

But the prosecutor says it makes no difference, because the children made allegations to police and parents, too: "When you look at these four children, and you look at the consistency of the reports, they are chilling in their consistency."

"The only thing that's chilling is the way the investigators questioned these children," says Williams.

For Cheryl, however, the judge's decision could be a final vindication.

"The evidence in this case is nothing short of overwhelming with improper interviewing techniques," says Judge Isaac Borenstein. "There is more than a substantial risk that the defendant was unjustly convicted."

Cheryl will remain free unless there's a new trial. But that is unlikely because the judge ruled the children's testimony would not be allowed.

"It was a moment that, you know, we waited for forever. It was a moment that we never, I never thought I was going to get," says Cheryl.

Cheryl is free, but her brother, Gerald, has been behind bars for 12 years. "I just want to clear my name and go home with my family where I belong," says Gerald.

Part II: Getting It Right